Buckley made excellence seem effortless

Freedom New Mexico

Just a listing of his accomplishments is a bit wearying, causing one to marvel that he packed so much into what in context seems like a mere 82 years of William F. Buckley Jr.’s life.

The godfather of modern American conservatism wrote at least 55 books, ranging from serious political treatises to spy novels to celebrations of the oceanic sailing he enjoyed so much.

There were about 5,600 newspaper columns, the TV discussion program “Firing Line,” which ran 1966-99, the magazine National Review, which he founded and edited until 1999. Just in the past year, he published a political novel, a book musing on National Review’s history and a personal memoir of Barry Goldwater, due in April.

And he did it all with a twinkle in his eye and gave off the sense that it was all effortless.

In 1955, when National Review was founded, the intellectual climate was so unrelentingly geared toward modern “liberalism” and socialism that the critic Lionel Trilling was able to write in 1950 that “it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”

Buckley had help, of course, but it is not too great an exaggeration to say that he changed that situation almost single-handedly. As George Will wrote in 1980, “All great biblical stories begin with Genesis. And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.”

Conflagrations, especially those imbued with political power, tend to burn out, and the conservative movement may have burned out under the reign of George W. Bush, with uncontrolled federal spending, expansion of government power to spy on Americans and an endless, ill-considered war.

Bill Buckley came to consider the Iraq war a mistake, but the colleagues to whom he bequeathed National Review have yet to come to terms with the implications of adopting a Wilsonian urge to spread democracy with bullets and bombs.

In his younger days, Buckley was influenced by such sturdy libertarians as Albert J. Nock and Frank Chodorov, and he sometimes used the word to describe himself. But he considered the communist menace so overbearing and threatening that he was willing to countenance and defend bigger government to oppose it, and to abandon the strategy of international noninterventionism that had served the United States well for many years.
Whether seriously or to tweak his ideological opponents, he defended segregationism and such authoritarian rulers as Spain’s Francisco Franco. Early on in the AIDS epidemic he advocated tattooing AIDS patients to identify them.

Bill Buckley was perhaps the most important figure influencing the nascent conservative movement to be so transfixed with concern about communism as to compromise devotion to individual liberty and limited government. While personally gracious to many, he could lapse into mean-spiritedness, as in a 1995 obituary for the Austrian-school economist and polymath Murray Rothbard.

For all his lapses, however, he seldom failed to amuse and charm with his ever-ready wit as he crossed lances in public with almost all the major political and literary figures of the 1960s and 1970s.

He recognized the futility and cruelty of the drug war early on and crusaded against it eloquently. He loved the English language like a second child and may have helped to delay its slide into vulgarity just a bit.

On his TV program, “Firing Line,” he let adversaries have their say and engaged them civilly and politely, in sharp contrast with the almost incoherent shouting matches one sees on cable news channels these days. Those who worked with him attest to his graciousness and generosity.

Few writers can say they had any impact on the political and cultural landscape. William F. Buckley Jr. had a monumental impact.